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  • Human Rights Research Center

The Disappearance of Native American Women in the U.S.

June 13, 2024



Introduction

 

As of 2020, there were 9.7 million Native Americans living in the United States (Shearer et al., 2022). Despite Native Americans constituting a small percentage of the U.S. population, rates of murder, rape, and violent crime committed against Native Americans are all higher than the national averages. In 2022, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,487 cases of missing Native American women and girls in the United States, where the majority of missing persons cases involved girls aged 0-17 years old. Several issues have contributed to the disproportionate number of Native women and girls going missing or being murdered: a lack of media attention, poor record keeping, complex jurisdictional issues, and a long history of racism. While Indigenous[1] Peoples around the world face similar harassment and abuse, this article will primarily speak on Native American women and girls in the United States.

 

Background Information

 

There are several causes for the devastatingly high rates of murder and disappearance of Native women and girls. A lack of media attention, poor record keeping, complex jurisdictional issues, and a long history of racism, all contribute to the high rates of assault and murder. First, there are issues that stem from the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which was a law passed in the United States intended to encourage and force the Native American community to leave reservations, acquire vocational skills, and assimilate into the general population. As a result, only a quarter of Native Americans live on reservations and instead live a lifestyle of transience between tribal and state lands (Shearer et al., 2022). This causes several issues in reporting policies, jurisdictional complications, and communication and coordination problems between agencies.


Federally recognized tribes retain the rights of an independent nation apart from local, state, or federal government. The U.S. government has an underlying contract with the tribal nations recognizing that the tribes possess inalienable powers of sovereignty. As a result, there are different laws applied to crimes depending on the location the crime was committed and who committed the crime. Non-Native men who assault or murder Native American women on reservations cannot be arrested or prosecuted by tribal authorities under a 1978 Supreme Court decision known as Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (Bleir & Zoledziowski, 2018). Consequently, the federal government would have jurisdiction over the crime, instead of the tribe or state government. The National Institute of Justice found that the most common perpetrators of violence against Native American women were non-Native people. This myriad of complex laws applied to different scenarios creates confusion and allows perpetrators to evade punishment.


Negative stereotypes and racism often play a role in the lack of prosecution and investigation. The victims are often blamed, for a variety of reasons like alcohol, drug use or homelessness. This results in the police not taking missing persons cases as seriously as they should. Additionally, centuries of hyper-sexualization and dehumanization of Native American women have contributed to why there is a disproportionate number of missing and murdered Native women and girls (Hunter, 2021). The United States Government Accountability Office (2021) found that tribal community members may not report missing cases to law enforcement due to fear or mistrust of law enforcement and expectations that law enforcement will not respond to these cases.


Data collection of Native missing persons cases remains difficult because of poor record-keeping, underreporting, and racial misclassification. As a result, the exact number of missing Native American women and girls is unknown. For example, federal law requires federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, but not tribal law enforcement agencies, to report missing children under the age of 21, but not those over the age of 21 (United States Government Accountability Office, 2021). The U.S. government has passed some policies and initiatives to bring awareness to this issue. In 2020, Savanna’s Act was passed to improve the federal response to missing or murdered indigenous persons (MMIP) by increasing coordination, training, and data collection among Federal, State, Tribal, and local law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, the act aims to empower Tribal governments with resources and information necessary to effectively respond to such cases. Several policies and laws have been passed in order to hold accountable those who commit crimes against Native women and girls; however, very little has worked to hold them accountable.

 

Conclusion

 

            Despite making up a small percentage of the U.S. population, Native women and girls continue to suffer abuse and assault at an alarming rate. The disappearance and murder of Native women and girls will continue as long as the complex jurisdictional system exists. There is evidence that the most common perpetrators of violence against Native American women are non-Native people. Federal policies and Supreme Court decisions have created a domino effect that allows perpetrators to evade punishment due to loopholes in the system. Additionally, negative stereotypes and a lack of media attention have played a role in the amount of violence that Native women and girls face. All of these aspects combined contribute to a lack of investigation and accountability. Unfortunately, this has been an issue in the United States for decades if not centuries. A solution would be to allow tribes to prosecute non-Natives who assault or murder Native Americans on reservations.


 

Glossary


Assimilate: to conform or adjust to the customs, attitudes, etc., of a dominant social group or nation.

[1] Indigenous Peoples refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity, such as “Navajo” or “Sami,” and is the equivalent of saying “the American people.” Native American and American Indian are terms used to refer to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact. American Indian has a specific legal context because the branch of law, Federal Indian Law, uses this terminology (UCLA, 2020).

Sovereignty: a political concept that refers to dominant power or supreme authority


 

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